Invasive plants have spread all over Virginia. Some groups say that needs to stop.
A 2023 compromise bill aimed to deter consumers through information while letting ‘commercially viable’ plants continue to be sold
Invasive beefstake plant (Perilla frutescens) in Pony Pasture Park of the James River Park System in Richmond. (Meghan McIntyre/Virginia Mercury)
Bradford pear trees’ delicate white petals and odor of rotting fish or urine didn’t always signal the start of spring throughout Virginia.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Asia native’s attractive flowers made it increasingly popular, resulting in its rapid spread through the commonwealth, said Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation biologist Kevin Heffernan.
But while the trees may be pretty, Heffernan said, they are also invasive. The Bradford pear can thwart the growth of nearby native plants, cause problems for birds that ingest its fruit and lead to infrastructure damage and accidents due to the breakage-prone nature of its heavy limbs.
“Sometimes people in our urbanized society forget that we need to respect the behavior and tendencies of the living things that we are currently moving around the earth willy-nilly,” Heffernan said.
Invasive species are exactly what they sound like: species that aren’t native to a location but can thrive there by reproduction. In Virginia, state code further defines them as species “whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Among the potential harms the state has identified are their ability to “damage and degrade crops, pasture and forestlands, clog waterways, spread human and livestock diseases, and destroy street trees.”
Nevertheless, there are currently no laws in place prohibiting the planting, growing or selling of invasive plants in Virginia — which Heffernan said stems from their profitability in nursery and landscaping industries.
That lack of restrictions is in contrast to how the state deals with noxious weeds, a category of plants that are considered to be just as harmful as invasive species but primarily impact agriculture. In Virginia, noxious weeds are completely outlawed because the state has determined the potential damage they cause exceeds their commercial value.
This year, state lawmakers sought to address concerns related to both types of vegetation by passing legislation tightening regulations on invasive plants while loosening restrictions on the transportation of noxious weeds that farmers have worried could unwittingly cause them to break the law.
Supporters of the bill say it was an important compromise that will help curb the spread of harmful vegetation without negatively impacting businesses that transport and sell them. But critics say the legislation’s protection of current financial interests that continue to spread invasive plants in Virginia could lead to far more costly and environmentally harmful consequences in the future.
“Part of the issue here is that there are very attractive plants that are also invasive species, and they can, you know, you can make a lot of money off of them,” said bill patron Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax. “The way the code works right now is that something can’t get on that noxious weeds list if it is economically viable … but almost anything is economically viable.”
“We kind of fell back on, well, how do we make an impact rather than banging our heads against the wall on this particular issue?” he continued. “I think this will make a significant difference.”
‘Commercially viable’ vs. ‘invasion debt’
Even though both cause harm, determining which invasive plants should be considered noxious weeds — and therefore banned in Virginia — boils down to whether or not industries have a customer base and whether the plants they sell are considered “commercially viable” in the commonwealth.
Jacob Barney, an invasive plant and weed science professor at Virginia Tech, said invasive plants have long been sold in the commonwealth despite their consequences. The ornamental Japanese barberry shrub, for example, was first introduced to the U.S. in 1875 and can now be found throughout Virginia forests. Despite research finding a correlation between large amounts of the species and an abundance of Lyme disease-carrying ticks, Japanese barberry is “still incredibly valuable” in landscaping and nursery trades, Barney said.
Other common invasives on the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s invasive plant species list include wavy leaf basket grass, English ivy, kudzu and autumn olive. Noxious weeds, a subset of invasive plants, include tropical soda apple, water spinach and tree of heaven. What determines which list a plant ends up on is an exception in the state’s noxious weeds definition that says a species can’t be classified as a noxious weed if it is “commercially viable or … commercially propagated in Virginia.”
“In an ideal world,” said Barney, “plants known to be problematic in the commonwealth wouldn’t be for sale.”
Furthermore, Barney said the lag period between when an invasive plant species is introduced and when its harmful consequences are understood can often mean that by the time officials realize it needs to be eradicated, it’s too widespread to be fully eliminated.
“When these things become established, basically invasion is forever,” Barney said.
The costs of those past decisions then have to be paid by future generations, an obligation Barney said is called “invasion debt.” That debt will persist, he said, as invasive species in Virginia continue to be sold.
Nevertheless, they are. While annual sales of invasive plant sales in Virginia are difficult to determine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found $271 million in floriculture, nursery and specialty crops were sold in Virginia in 2019, the latest year for which data are available.
Research into the costs of dealing with these species is easier to find. A 2018 Virginia Invasive Species Management Plan, put together for a working group created by the General Assembly in 2009, estimated that “losses due to invasive species in Virginia may be as high as $1 billion annually.”
Virginia Farm Bureau National Affairs Coordinator Ben Rowe said even if invasive plants are considered commercially viable for nursery and landscaping businesses, they can cause significant losses not only for agriculture and forestry producers, but for those who depend on them.
When these things become established, basically invasion is forever.
– Jacob Barney, an invasive plant and weed science professor at Virginia Tech
“Noxious weeds and invasive species compete with pasture and crops, which leads to reduced yields and quality, and require additional intervention from the farmer,” Rowe said. “Some of these species are also harmful to animal health if ingested by livestock.”
In 2021, a state-convened work group considered getting rid of the noxious weed definition’s commercial viability exception, particularly because Virginia hadn’t actually defined what it meant to be commercially viable. However, the group was unable to reach consensus.
One plant wholesaler with clients across the Mid-Atlantic, Saunders Brothers, made the “relatively easy” decision to begin phasing out invasive plants, said Paul Westervelt, who works in production.
“We don’t have enough room to grow all the things we want to grow anyway,” said Westervelt. “The hardest part was communicating with customers, because a lot of our retail customers have been buying these same plants for years. You tend to do what worked well for you last year, and you do that again.”
While opinions on what to do with invasive plants and noxious weeds differ throughout Virginia, plant and industry groups this year ultimately compromised on legislation that they said is a starting point to addressing their everyone’s concerns.
This year’s legislation took two key steps: It required tradespeople like landscapers to notify people who choose to plant an invasive species that an invasive plant species is what they selected. And it removed a requirement that anyone who transports noxious weeds into and throughout Virginia must get a permit to do so.
For some groups, like the Virginia Native Plant Society and Blue Ridge Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM), the notification requirement doesn’t go far enough to solve invasive species problems.
“I’d really like to see more of these invasive plants banned in Virginia,” said Nancy Vehrs, president of the Virginia Native Plant Society. “It just seems like we’re getting assaulted with new invasive species all the time.”
Nevertheless, many of the groups ultimately supported the bill because of the increased awareness that notification provides and a recognition that a stricter law might not make it through the General Assembly because of industry resistance.
The Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association didn’t provide testimony on the bill. But Executive Director Shellie Archer said in an interview with the Mercury that there is “an interest in being part of the conversation” on broader efforts to phase out invasive plant sales.
Rob McGinnis, associate principal at Kennon Williams Landscape Studio and a member of the Virginia chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, said the notification provision “seemed reasonable.”
“The ASLA’s policy statement says that invasive plants should be avoided, but some people like the appearance of English ivy on estates,” McGinnis said. Overall, he added, “We’re very careful about overstepping in a regulatory environment.”
Bulova said the final legislation was a matter of figuring out “what was going to be politically feasible.” Notification was one action everyone seemed willing to get behind.
“As soon as somebody is notified, nine times out of 10, they’re going to say, ‘No, no, thank you, we would prefer not to have something on that invasive plant list put into my property,’” Bulova said. “It would be a natural trigger to change some behaviors.”
Even as the legislation sought to discourage the planting of invasives, it also loosened Virginia’s permit requirements for the transportation of noxious weeds, rules intended to minimize those species’ spread.
While the two actions might seem contradictory on their face, Virginia Farm Bureau Senior Vice President of Government Relations Martha Moore said removing the permit requirement was “critical” because the widespread and pervasive nature of noxious weeds has led to worries among farmers that they might unintentionally transport such species along with crops or livestock and rack up a misdemeanor.
“We don’t want farmers to have to get a permit to do normal farming practices,” Moore said.
Removing that permit requirement could also open up the door for more invasive plants to be put on the noxious weeds list, said Rod Walker, a board member for Blue Ridge PRISM. Previously, he said, farmers have opposed adding some invasives to the noxious weeds list because once there, they would trigger the permit requirement.
“For incidental movement, those permits presumably will no longer be required,” Walker said. “Therefore, we can now have the discussion of actually putting some of these plants onto the noxious weeds list.”
Leading by example?
As Virginia increases its understanding of invasive plant species, state agencies say they’re prioritizing the use of native plants.
Some Virginia state agencies grow plants or do landscaping on public lands. Consequently, Bulova said prohibiting them from using invasives through his bill offers a chance for the commonwealth to demonstrate what plants to use. The goal is for the legislation to work in tandem with a bill from Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, to prioritize the use of native plants on state property.
The Virginia Department of Transportation, Department of Forestry, Department of Wildlife Resources and Department of Environmental Quality all say they are transitioning away from invasive plant species after years of recommending their use and in some cases planting them for erosion control.
However, the legislation that cleared the General Assembly this session exempts Virginia agencies from the prohibition if their use of invasive species is considered “necessary for scientific or educational purposes or bona fide agricultural purposes including the management, tilling, planting, or harvesting of agricultural products.”
Rowe said Virginia uses the phrase “bona fide agricultural purposes” to define official agricultural operations and differentiate them from “someone attempting to claim, for example, that their lawn or home garden is a farm.”
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Exactly what activities will qualify for the agricultural purposes exemption is murky. While Virginia Department of Forestry nurseries used to sell invasive seedlings, State Forester Rob Farrell said they have since stopped.
When asked for clarification, Bulova told the Mercury that invasive species planted by agencies would come under regulations that are being developed by VDACS “in order to be able to say under what circumstances would you be allowed to do something like that for agricultural or educational purposes.”
But VDACS Director of Communications Michael Wallace told the Mercury the agency “is not working to create a regulation for that section of code as there is no directive to do so.”
While the new law loosened some restrictions on noxious weeds, VDACS is still responsible for finding them.
The agency has “plant protection inspectors” who will stop the sale of plants at a nursery when they discover noxious weeds, Wallace said. The sales can’t resume until the noxious weeds are gone, which sometimes involves releasing insects that feed specifically on the targeted species.
Agencies involved with invasive plant species also say they have limited resources. Heffernan at the Department of Conservation and Recreation noted that he and one other staffer are the only agency employees working on invasive plants. While budget amendments from Bulova totaling about $1.5 million would add five staff members across VDACS, the Department of Forestry and the Department of Conservation and Recreation for invasive species management, it’s not clear if that spending will be included in the budget deal that legislators will vote on in Richmond Wednesday.
Climate change’s compounding contribution
While invasive species and noxious weeds management have been a concern in Virginia for decades, experts say the problem is compounded by climate change.
Plants thrive in typically warmer climates, explained Barney, meaning invasive plants are more prevalent in the South. But with global temperatures increasing, the invasive plants that were once predominant in states like Georgia are migrating their way north into Virginia and beyond.
“A really effective way of mitigating that would be to work regionally to create policies and management plans and frameworks that are sort of looking towards the future,” Barney said.
Groups like the Virginia Native Plant Society and Blue Ridge PRISM said they’re eager to make further progress but have been frustrated by a lack of action from the state’s invasive species working groups.
“Anything was squashed by nursery and landscape folks,” said Vehrs.
Archer, with the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association, said her group has “some work ahead of us” and intends to discuss the issue more at an upcoming board meeting. McGinnis, with the American Society of Landscape Architects, noted that working groups “are tough” because of the “wide range of stakeholders with different agendas.”
But Westervelt of Saunders Brothers nursery is still holding out hope, even while acknowledging that the industry is responsible for the introduction and continued cultivation of many invasives.
“I hope that all nurseries are looking at what they’re offering and are thinking about how that can impact the environment,” he said. “We do work in an industry where we get to make the world more beautiful for a living.”
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